Thursday, October 30, 2008

Celebrating Owls at Halloween

Celebrating Owls at Halloween

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

If you’ve ever been awakened by the call of a screech owl, you know why people associate owls with all things eerie. But as Halloween approaches, I like to take time to appreciate the creatures of the night. The biggest fans of such creatures at my house are my children, Jane and Will, and they’ve joined me today to celebrate owls.

As birds that work the night shift, owls are equipped with some fascinating adaptations that enable them to locate and capture prey in the dark.

Will, would you tell about owls’ eyes.

Will: Sure. Owls see very well in low light. Their eyes are extra large for their bodies, and their retinas are super sensitive.

Since owls can’t move their eyes up and down or side to side the way we do, they have to move their heads instead. Sometimes it looks like an owl can turn its head around in a complete circle, but they can’t go quite that far.

Rob: Jane, why don’t you talk about how owls’ hearing helps them function in the dark?

Jane: Okay. Owls possess excellent hearing, which allows them to find prey they can’t see--like a mouse scratching for food under a pile of leaves. Owls’ ears are surrounded by deep, soft feathers that can be spread to make a sound-collecting funnel. The dish shape created by the owl’s face is also thought to collect and focus sound. It’s said that an owl can hear a mouse squeak from half a mile away!

Dad, we should also tell people that an owl’s ears are openings in the side of its head. Those tufts on top of some species are display feathers, which have nothing to do with hearing.

Rob: Thanks, Jane. I would add that while owls hear very well, they are also good at not being heard as the fly. They have specially adapted flight feathers that reduce the noise made by air passing over their wings. This allows them to swoop in on prey undetected.

Will, maybe you could say more about owls as hunters.

Will: Owls use their powerful feet and sharp talons to attack and hold prey. And just about any small animal can be prey for one owl or another.

Owls eat some small animals, like insects, worms, scorpions, crayfish, frogs and snakes.

Jane: Jane again. Owls also prey on mice, rats, voles, rabbits, squirrels, and many kinds of birds. The great horned owl, which has a poor sense of smell, even makes a habit of eating skunks.

You can tell what owls have eaten because they cough up pellets containing fur, bones, and other material they can’t digest.

Rob: One way to find owls during the day is to look for these pellets and for large splashes of owl whitewash at the base of trees, especially evergreens, and then look up.

Will: Or maybe you’d rather enjoy owls from a distance.

Jane: Listen to the great horned owl—

All: Halloween is just around the corner.

Credit for audio of owls calls to the Macauley Library at the
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
, Ithaca, New York. Special thanks to Tammy Bishop for her help!